Is It Possible to Scam a Slot Machine?

Can you scam a slot machine? This is a great question, and if the answer was a simple yes, there would be way more millionaires running around, and casinos would be out of business.

If you ask casino operators, they will say that their machines are fool-proof and cannot be scammed. However, over the years, especially in earlier days when technology was not so advanced, there have been incidences of players who claimed that they worked the slot machine to their advantage. Think this is possible?

Let’s dig deeper.

Different Ways of Scamming a Slot Machine: The Early Days

There were some low-tech ways of scamming slot machines, but it didn’t get any more low-tech than this.

  • Players would attach a string to a coin, insert the coin into the slot and once the coin tripped the machine’s counting mechanism, pull the coin back one! A player could subsequently play for as long as they wanted and win as much as they could, for free, and with a single coin!
  • Players would hide a magnet in their pocket. Magnets worked brilliantly on some machines by allowing the reels to keep spinning because of the magnetic field. Once the symbols hit a specific combination they would remove the magnet and the reels would stop and he would win a big!

Scamming Slot Machines: The Beginning of High-Tech

A notorious slots scammer was Tommy Glenn Carmichael, who came up with ways to cheat at slots for over 4 decades.

Carmichael is associated with many devices that helped scam slot machines, the most well-known being:

  • The Monkey’s Paw: A device made of guitar string and attached to a metal wand, inserted through an air vent to trip a microswitch and trigger a jackpot payout.
  • The Light Wand: The light wand is even more significant than the Monkey’s Paw because it is almost contemporary. It was developed after the first of the RNG-driven electronic slots came about. It tripped an electronic sensor instead of an actual switch.

After he was finally caught and served prison time, he turned over a new leaf and worked with the Nevada Gaming Commission to develop what was called ‘The Protector’: technology to help block devices that are inserted into machines to enable cheating.

Another person who used and tweaked technology to his advantage to pick up wins was Ronald Dale Harris. The juicy part of the story: Harris actually worked with the Nevada Gaming Commission!

As an engineer working for the Commission, he had access to machine source codes and he used this knowledge to his advantage for years, scoring countless ‘illegal’ wins. He was caught in 1995 in New Jersey when he scored a massive $100,000 win on video keno.

Scamming at Slots Today: Breaking the RNG Barrier

The advanced technology that land-based and online casinos use nowadays has made cheating at slots a difficult affair that is beyond the realm of possibilities for a solo artist. You would need a full-fledged team, like in the movies, to pull something like that off.

RNG has made cheating at slots so hard to pull off nowadays. An online slot such as Book of Ra poses a much harder test of a hacker’s skills, and in the early days bad coding made it possible to gain an advantage. However, nowadays such flaws and inconsistencies are usually taken care of, with the use of the RNG.  But even that has its flaws, apparently, as authorities have found out.

One minor chink in the electronic full body armor of these casinos is the use of pseudo-random number generators (PRNG) instead of actual RNGs at many of the online casinos today.

Unlike RNGs, which collect data from the immediate environment for analysis, such as electromagnetic noise, for instance, a PRNG comes with a specific pre-defined value and calculates numbers based on that, making the outcome appear seemingly random. Scammers can take advantage of this ‘weakness’ to crack the supposed ‘RNG’ code.

A recent Netflix original show, Ozark, shows how one of the main characters, Wendy Bryde, works with another central character to scam the slot machines and drain a hotel and casino of funds and then, in true movie style, blame it on someone else. The working of the slots is not part of some dystopian fantasy: it is exactly what a crew of Russians did to bleed casinos across the world for years.

Cheating at Slots Today: The Russian Connection

Once Russian Premier Vladimir Putin outlawed all forms of gambling in 2009, casinos there had no other recourse but to sell all their slot machines at dirt-cheap prices to whoever wanted them. A crew of Russians from St. Petersburg bought some of these machines and got down to testing them for whatever flaws and vulnerabilities they possessed.

In 2014, things started acting up at Lumiere Place Casino in St. Louis – accountants felt that a number of their casinos were performing erratically. The software behind the machines provides a house edge that allows the casino to anticipate how much they could earn per dollar played: on June 2nd and 3rd, the machines paid out far more in proportion to the wagers made, consistently.

On checking surveillance tapes, they found the culprit to be a man in his 30s. This person would play a slot, but in a strange manner – he would hold his iPhone close to the screen as he played, walk away after a few minutes, and come back and play again, and that is when he would win: over $21,000 in a matter of just 2 days!

The matter reached the Missouri Gaming Commission and a broader investigation revealed startling details: the man in question, a 37-year old Russian national, Murat Bliev was not the sole Russian with a penchant for weird slot-play – there were others spotted at casinos across the state, and the machines in question were all the Aristocrat Mark IV.

Extensive investigation finally unraveled the whole crime, and it was spectacular, by any standards:

  1. The players record about 2 dozen spins on a specific game on their spins.
  2. They then upload the footage to a crew back home.
  3. The crew, mostly techies and analysts, analyze the video and determine the play pattern based on the info they have about the machines PRNG.
  4. Then, the crew sends back a list to the operative’s iPhone on a custom app. The list contains specific timing markers.
  5. The markers now cause the player’s phone to vibrate for a quarter of a second before he is to press the Spin button. When he hits spin, he scores the payout.

In 2011 a number of casinos in central and eastern Europe had logged similar instances – large sums of money won out of turn on Novomatic machines. But lack of evidence had made the investigators conclude that the players had probably found a way to predict the machines’ behaviour.

All this was back in 2014, and while security technology has evolved a whole lot since then, so have the ways to beat it. The same team from St. Petersburg was found to be behind another operation in Singapore in 2016. This time the team was more discreet  players didn’t have to hold a cell phone in their hand, they could keep it in their chest pocket and go undetected.

So Yes or No?

So the question remains – can you scam slot machines? The Average Joe certainly can’t. But a team of criminals with the right kind of technological knowledge and desire could probably work something out.

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